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Friday, February 14, 2014

In the Middle East, Arabic Wikipedia Is a Flashpoint — And a Beacon -- By Alice Su, Wired, Threat Level

Arabic Wikipedia founder Rami Tarawneh. Photo: Courtesy TarawnehRami Tarawneh knew something was wrong when security in a Middle Eastern airport made him wait for three hours. The 36-year-old Jordanian traveled throughout the region often, but this was the first time that mukhabarat, secret police, had pulled him aside with a specific demand: Give us the IP address of a particular Arabic Wikipedia user.

“We know who you are,” the police told Tarawneh. As the founder and highest-ranking administrator of Arabic Wikipedia at the time — 2007 — Tarawneh had access to the IP addresses of every site contributor, including those who wrote controversial statements about Middle Eastern governments. “They wanted to know the IP of a certain guy who wrote something about the country’s leader,” Tarawneh says without mentioning which country or airport he was in.

Arabic Wikipedia has evolved enormously since that 2007 incident. Through it all, Tarawneh has been a steady presence, guiding and cheerleading as Arabic Wikipedia has become an important information resource for the region. Far more than a translation of its English counterpart, the site has 690,000 registered users who’ve authored more than 240,000 articles. Many of the articles reflect a Middle Eastern worldview entirely different from the Western one, and their writers navigate acute religious and political sensitivities. Arabic Wikipedia has been blocked twice in Saudi Arabia and three times in Syria, but not in Jordan or Egypt. The Saudis only blocked certain articles, Tarawneh says, like ones about body parts.

Back in 2007, Tarawneh told the police he needed time to find the IP address on his laptop. Released for two days, he went home and phoned the Wikipedian community. They decided to stage a fake dispute on “Al-Midan,” the Arabic version of Wikipedia’s technical discussion forum, Village Pump. When the police summoned Tarawneh a few days later, he told them that in the wake of the dispute, he’d been removed from administrator status. “I gave them my account and password, but everything was blocked,” Tarawneh says. Unable to extract the IP address they’d wanted, the police released him.

Since then, the Arabic Wikipedia community has changed its policies so that nobody has access to all user information. “It’s very dangerous for a single person to have all the rights,” Tarawneh says. “It’s not a matter of ownership. The kind of access you have is very serious. In the Middle East, you could destroy somebody’s life.”

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